EU chiefs acting like gang leaders over Brexit threats, says Liam Fox

Trade secretary and DUP’s Arlene Foster criticise European leaders for plans to ‘punish’ UK.

EU chiefs have been compared by Liam Fox and Arlene Foster to gang leaders who are “throwing threats of violence around” to get what they want on Brexit.

During a charged series of speeches to the British Chambers of Commerce, Fox, the UK international trade secretary, and Foster, the Democratic Unionist party [DUP] leader, attacked the EU’s hardening stance on both trade and the Irish border.

In a speech criticising the European commission’s “bad faith” on the border issue, Foster hit out at the view of Brussels leaders that not accepting proposals for keeping the border open would encourage a return of terrorism – which, she said, was tantamount to a threat.

She told the conference of business leaders in London: “I do object, in the strongest terms, to people who have limited experience of the Troubles in Northern Ireland throwing threats of violence around as some kind of bargaining chip in the negotiating process. To do so is an insult to the people of Northern Ireland who have worked so hard to bring peace to our country.

“I can remember the evening when the IRA shot my father [and] in bloodstained state he crawled into our kitchen. I remember the day the IRA bombed my school bus severely injuring the girl sitting beside me. When I talk about the border in a Brexit scenario I don’t speak about some far away land, I speak about home.”

The secretary of state for international trade also echoed the charge of allegedly thuggish behaviour by Brussels, criticising the argument of Donald Tusk and others that British trade access must be worse than the status quo after leaving the EU.

“The idea of punishing Britain is not the language of a club, it’s the language of a gang,” Fox told the BCC. “We need to begin this argument by putting politics aside and do what is in the economic interests of the people we represent.”

Fox insisted it was also “in all our interests to keep the temperature down”. But the comments of both leaders marks a sharp deterioration in relations since a series of draft texts from Brussels on the divorce agreement and future trade talks.

He also hinted that the limited nature of the trade deal now on offer from Brussels should not deter Britain from walking away without any agreement if necessary. “Our approach should not just be based upon how much of our current relationship we want to keep. Soon we will have more control of our economic destiny than at any time in four decades.”

Foster accused the European commission of acting in bad faith by issuing a draft withdrawal text that focused on the UK’s last resort for keeping the border open. “It only deals with the backstop,” she said. “We need to see the two other options in the text as well.”

Even Labour party speakers at the conference, who have recently struck a more conciliatory tone over Brexit, issued warnings over the direction of recent talks.

In a separate speech, the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, accused Theresa May of trying to tie the hands of a future government by proposing that the UK accepted binding European rules on state aid. “We can’t support any interpretation of EU rules that would block a future government from bringing businesses back into public ownership,” he said.

McDonnell also accused the chancellor, Philip Hammond, of pandering to “rentiers and speculators” in the City with proposals for financial services to be included in any trade deal with the EU. “The chancellor has shown his hand. Win a deal for financial services first and then worry about the rest of the economy.”

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